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This year I’ve decided to try reading Volume 1 of Capital by Karl Marx. With Monika out of town all summer, what else is a bored and lonely leftist to do?
I should note that while I work my way through this immense tome, my pea brain is getting some invaluable assistance from NYU professor, David Harvey, whose lectures on Capital are available in video form.
Chapter 1 of Capital starts with an exploration of the commodity. A commodity is like the building block of capitalism. The commodities Marx seems most fond of in his discussion are linen, corn and coats. If he’d written it today, he might have discussed gasoline, iPads and Twizzlers.
A commodity is whatever satisfies a human desire or need. That said, not everything that meets a human desire or need is a commodity. If I had the land required (and the skill) to grow myself some nice tasty tomatoes, the fruits of my labours, if consumed by me and my immediate circle (Monika, Banchi, friends), are not commodities. They’re simply tasty homegrown tomatoes! Similarly, in pre-capitalist societies, most of what was produced by the peasants – even if “stolen” by the ruling aristocracy – did not meet the definition of a “commodity.” Because, as a building block of capitalism, a commodity, to be a commodity, must enter into the marketplace.
Marx says a commodity has a use-value and an exchange-value. Boy, there is a lot of time spent discussing use-value and exchange-values. For the reader, it’s a bit of a tough row to hoe. Use value, insofar as my dunce-head can grasp it, describes the particular use a person can make out of a commodity. So to use Marx’s original terms, linen might have a use-value to me because I can make a coat out of it.
Since they’re part of capitalism, commodities, in addition to use value, must also have exchange-values. i.e. they must be something that I can trade in the marketplace.
This is where things get sticky. Because Marx then notes how each and every commodity is exchangeable with every other commodity. And he supposes that this is because each and every commodity must have something in common with each and every other commodity. Since I could, in theory, trade an iPad for a cocker spaniel – or for any other commodity for that matter – there must be something in common between the two commodities to make such a trade possible. There must be something in common between even an iPad and a cocker spaniel. That “something” is a third quality of a commodity that Marx calls value.
Ha, ha, see?! So a commodity is bestowed with use-value, exchange-value, and value. Simple as mud in your eye.
What then, exactly, is value? If commodities have a use-value, which is quite tangible (i.e. I can drink it, eat it, take it for a walk and have it lick my face) as well as an exchange-value, which is also fairly tangible (I can trade it for something else) then what is this third quality of commodities – this mysterious thing called value? Value seems to be an abstraction, since it is not something that I can actually see in the commodity. But whatever this value is would appear to be very important, since it is what makes all commodities exchangeable with each other.
David Harvey really saved my pea brain from total meltdown here. It turns out that value is socially necessary labour time. This is to say that what gives a commodity value is the labour that went into it. But of course, that labour must be “socially necessary” – your labour must create a use-value for somebody else.
So if I were to start Villeray Incorporated (hmm, sounds like a familiar story), and I decided to start manufacturing cat kibbles, in order to satisfy the definition of “commodity” my cat kibbles must have a use-value, an exchange-value, and value. My cat kibbles have use-value because they can be eaten (i.e. by Banchi, or by me, depending on how poverty stricken I am that month); they must also have an exchange-value so that I can exchange them with my neighbor, James, for, say, lettuce from his garden. And lastly, what gives my cat kibbles their exchangeability is the fact that they hold value: their value is that they provide a use-value for somebody else (in this case, for James, because he can feed my yummy cat kibbles to his own cats).
Voilà! Bob’s your uncle: commodities are totally easy to understand!
Or are they?
Marx is not satisfied to say that commodities are bearers of value simply because of the labour that goes into them. Socially necessary labour time is a term that merits a good deal more unpacking. Because it is not at all clear at first glance how exactly socially necessary labour coheres into commodities of value. Does it mean that if I bust my ass manufacturing cat kibbles for 14 hours a day that at the end of the week I have created commodities of great value? This is obviously not a certain thing. Given the means at my disposal, I could hardly manufacture sufficient cat kibbles to be of any great value to anyone else, because I am competing with factories. I might spend a week to create the equivalent of one bag of cat kibbles. The factory-made equivalent could be purchased for under $20. So the context in which labour occurs turns out to be highly important.
Socially necessary labour time is the labour time required to produce any use-value under the conditions of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labour prevalent in that society. (p129)
Ah ha! It all makes sense. But while some of us might have been quite happy to go down the bar and celebrate these clever discoveries with some pints, Marx, overachiever that he is, delves even further into his inquiry. He differentiates between concrete labour and abstract labour. The first, concrete labour, creates use-values. If I make a coat out of linen, I have applied my concrete labour into something with a use-value: I can wear it! Marx goes on to generalize about concrete labour in a way to encompass nothing short of the entirety of human history; concrete labour is a condition of human existence. We interact with nature, and have done so since time immemorial, by making use-values out of the material things we find around us. So concrete labour, as a creator of use-value, is not limited to a capitalist mode of production. But when the objects of our labour, commodities, enter into exchange with each other, our labour-power is being abstracted. Our labour becomes the equivalent of somebody else’s labour, as objectified in the commodity which is going to be exchanged. It is abstract labour, no longer merely tied to one particular use-value, but abstracted to a system of exchange with a potentially infinite number of other products of labour.
(This is as far as I can go with concrete v. abstract labour, because to be frank, it was all a bit murky to me.)
Marx goes on to make a wonderful observation about the value of commodities. He notes that you cannot find a value of a commodity within the commodity itself. You cannot take a table, dissect it, and thereby calculate its value. “Not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities as values,” he writes (p138). As David Harvey notes, a similar dynamic is at play when we consider gravity. You can’t calculate a gravitational pull on a stone by dissecting the stone. Gravity only appears when the stone is in relation to other things. Commodities only have value by virtue of their relationships with other commodities. Marx says that these relationships are, by definition, social.
There is no inherent value to a commodity outside of the value that is actualized once it enters the marketplace. If labour is expended to create a commodity that cannot be traded, that commodity is useless. And so too is the labour I expended on it.
Marx now considers something very ingenious indeed. Every commodity is exchangeable with every other commodity, however, as we all know, these exchanges are far from simple and straightforward. If I own a cocker spaniel, I can’t just trade it straight up for, say, a Boeing 747… or a yacht. In a system of straight exchanges, we get used to the idea pretty quickly of saying something like, one Boeing 747 = x cocker spaniel; x in this case might well be in the order of 900 cocker spaniels. Or 19,000 cocker spaniels — I’m not sure, having not tried to buy a Boeing 747 recently.
Marx spells out a few hypothetical examples of exchanges, using linen as the commodity against which all other commodities are compared in value:
10 1b. tea__________
40 1b coffee___________ = 20 pounds linen
2 ounces gold________
½ ton gold_______
The choice of linen as the basis for comparison is totally arbitrary. Marx could just as well have made it coffee or tea or coats, or what have you. Furthermore, the quantities are pretty arbitrary too. What makes 20 pounds of linen the basis of comparison? Why not 50 pounds? Or one pound?
Within a system of exchange of increasing complexity, the place of linen in the very simple example above is taken instead by some other commodity. This commodity is what is called the universal equivalent. Generally, in capitalist societies, the universal equivalent is gold. What we have all gotten used to over time is the idea of gold as the money commodity. But for the sake of the argument Marx builds here, the money commodity is serving the exact same function as linen in the example above. It is the agreed-upon commodity against which all other commodities will be compared for the sake of discussing value. A cocker spaniel is worth 2 ounces of gold, or 2 dollars, is pretty much the same as saying it is worth, say, 2 pounds of linen.
But where does my breakfast come from?
The last section of Chapter 1 is called “The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret,” and is perhaps the most interesting and liveliest section to read, but a good deal of it eludes my overtaxed mind muscles. Fetishism is used in this section by Marx to describe the way in which commodities appear to take on a life of their own. Insofar as a commodity is useful (it has a use-value) it is not all that mysterious, but just as soon as it is exchanged, something very strange indeed happens:
it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will (p163-164).
There is another wonderful passage that evokes the mysterious nature of the value of these seemingly animated commodities:
Value… does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic (p167).
This, to me, very much describes the world in which we live, whereby the commodities that surround us appear as objects of value in their own right; these objects have a relation with each other and also with us, but Marx’s contention, I think, is that these relations have obscured the relations between actual flesh and blood human beings. We are encouraged within a capitalist mode of production to personify commodities to the degree that I will say “I love Camembert,” and “I love my new cell phone,” but discouraged from thinking about how we might feel about the labourers who created the Camembert or cell phone in question. Indeed, these things cannot matter too much to us, because while it is fairly straightforward to have a relationship with the limited number of commodities that make up our daily lives, it is downright impossible to have a relationship with the millions of people responsible for making and distributing those same commodities.
David Harvey explains, “People under capitalism do not relate to each other directly as human beings; they relate to each other through the myriad products which they encounter in the market.”
I do not think Harvey here is suggesting (or claiming that Marx is suggesting) that all direct human relationships are impossible under capitalism; there are, after all, human interactions that occur outside of the capitalist mode of production. But whenever a social relation is enacted within a capitalism system of exchange, direct human relationships are rendered impossible.
Harvey fleshes this out in a very tangible way. He asks, “Where does your breakfast come from?”
When I contemplate the smorgasbord that I might serve up on a Saturday morning: mangoes and cherry jam and croissants and coffee and milk and so on, it quickly becomes apparent that answering Harvey’s question is almost impossible, or would be, at least, the result of a good week of investigation. Of course, all these food commodities came from the corner epicerie, but this was only the last step on what was a very long journey involving countless human beings and hours of human labour.
Capitalism, Marx argues, has concealed the human relationships behind commodities — those on my table or anywhere else. When it comes to commodities, we generally hold something like an iPad in very high esteem, but the labourer who made it? Not so much. Apple anounces the iPad to be a “magical and revolutionary product at an unbelievable low price.” I think that this hyperbolic language is part of what Marx has in mind when he talks of commodity fetishism. The iPad is no more “magical” than a hammer; it does exactly what it is supposed to do according to the properties invested in it by the humans that invented it and the human labour that enabled its mass production. As for “unbelievable price…” How often do we hear in capitalism the apparent language of religion to describe concepts such as pricing that are actually quite banal in their rationality? The price of an iPad is not unbelievable; it is exactly the price that Apple has calculated to cover the cost of production (which includes, in part, the pay to the workers) while ensuring a healthy return to the company and its owners. So Steve Jobs can be even richer.
What is not mentioned in the language of commodity fetishism that swirls enthusiastically around the iPad is our social relation with the workers that manufactured the gizmos in the first place. They apparently work in conditions so grim that several of them have committed suicide. You can find out here lots more about human rights abuses, brutal hours and low pay at the iPad sweatshop. When confronted with a news story like that, it’s yet another reminder about the contradictions in capitalism: the smooth sheen of the surface versus the sweat and squalor that lies underneath. Both surface and underlying conditions are real, but we must acknowledge both to understand what is going on.
What I find fascinating in Marx is to see the terms and concepts and internal contradictions that he exposes in capitalism playing out all around you in the real world every single day.
And that’s just chapter 1!